England wants its bear back.
Not just any bear, of course. The English want Winnie-the-Pooh, the original stuffed bear, the one from before the stories and movies and millions of plush toys made based on his imaginary adventures.
They want the actual stuffed bear whose head bump, bump, bumped down the stairs behind Christopher Robin (again, the real one, Christopher Robin Milne, son of author A.A. Milne) as the two prepared to listen to tales from the world of Pooh, before it became the book “The House at Pooh Corner.”
They want the bear that Christopher Robin handed over to the book’s American publisher in 1947, noting he was an adult now and had left childhood behind for, as his father’s work explained growing up, “Kings and Queens and Factors and islands and Europe and how you make a Suction Pump (if you want to).”
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Pooh stayed in the publisher’s office until 1987, when he donated it to the New York Power Authority, which handed it over to the New York Public Library. That bear is now on display “in the basement” of the library, as the British press has sniffed recently.
So the English want their bear back because he’s been gone ever so long, and because Winnie-the-Pooh isn’t just any bear. As the Times of London noted in a recent editorial, “Winnie-the-Pooh is not just a reference to a fictional bear, but to a national concept of a childhood Eden – an identifiable woodland in which stuffed animals, belonging to an archetypal nursery, roam in gentle complacency.”
And, the editorial went on to note, “It is obvious then that Winnie-the-Pooh, whatever else he is, is not an American.”
The repatriation of Pooh is hardly a new cause. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is reported to have raised the issue with former President Bill Clinton.
The Times built a case for the return of Pooh. The editorial noted that Pooh “was apparently not paid for and the English people were not consulted on its relocation across the ocean.” The newspaper envisioned a specially built museum in East Sussex, near the 100 Acre Wood that Pooh and Christopher Robin (and Piglet and Owl and Eeyore and Kanga, the stuffed animal menagerie) roamed.
The Times went on to note that since 1947, “desultory efforts have been made to secure the return of this plundered piece of history. All have failed in the face of American obstinacy. Pooh, says the library, is happy and well-looked after where he is – a formulation carrying the insulting implication that this country is incapable of maintaining a valuable stuffed animal.”
Still, there is irony in the Times’ position, as the arguments are a mirror image of a case made recently for why the British Museum, and not Athens, was the rightful resting place for the so-called Elgin Marbles, statues that used to adorn the Parthenon but were transferred to Britain in the early years of the 19th century. Greece has wanted the statues back for 200 years, almost as long as they’ve been gone, and the arguments are the same: They weren’t sold by the Greeks but plundered by occupiers, who gave them to the British ambassador, Lord Elgin; a special museum has been built for their return, and the statues are much more than simply works of art but symbols of the greatness that was Greece.
But those arguments were brushed aside because such works belong to the world, and the British Museum was the place for the world to see them. And there they remain.
Angela Montefinise, director of media relations for the New York Public Library, said that the reluctance to move Pooh today is based on the fact that he is a fragile sort of bear. The idea of sending him back on holiday to the 100 Acre Wood might score sentimental points, but it wouldn’t if the bear arrived in tatters.
“There are currently no plans to loan Winnie and his friends,” she wrote in an email. “While the Library would consider inquiries from reputable institutions, the dolls are quite fragile, and our first priority is to ensure their preservation and safety.”
She said that far from being stuffed into a dank dungeon, as the Times’ editorial implies, “Winnie-the-Pooh and friends live in our Children’s Center at our landmark 42nd Street Library.” The fragile-looking stuffed toys are part of the library’s research collection, which also includes William Shakespeare’s First Folios, a Gutenberg Bible, Charles Dickens’ writing desk, a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair and a Declaration of Independence.
Even among such company, Pooh matters a great deal to New Yorkers. Montefinise said that it’s common to see adults get very emotional when first seeing the toys. There have been marriage proposals in front of the display case. “The librarians themselves leave Winnie a pot of honey and a red balloon every year on his birthday – he is a cherished part of everyday life at (the library),” she wrote.
Gyles Brandreth, a British writer, broadcaster and former member of Parliament, said in an interview for an article for The Times that he’d very much like to see Pooh “pay a visit to his homeland.” But he noted that he’d chatted with Christopher Robin about the matter.
“Christopher Robin himself told me he was quite happy for Pooh and the others to stay in New York,” he told The Times. “They were his childhood toys. Once his childhood was over, he was quite happy to say goodbye to them.”
If you need to pause for a second to dab tears, and explain again why we must grow up, we understand.
Still, The Times insisted that like a popped balloon and an empty jar of honey, England and Pooh are meant to be together. “So today enlightened Americans who can imagine what it would be like if the original Moby Dick were to be displayed in, say, a Chinese museum, will surely want to join us in calling for the return of Pooh,” they wrote. “They understand that for English people it would be almost as good as a balloon.”